Fool House

Proverbs 26:4-5 might be the most commented-on pair of verses in that book, as they appear to directly contradict each other.

Answer not a fool according to his folly,
    lest you be like him yourself.
Answer a fool according to his folly,
    lest he be wise in his own eyes.

So what’s going on here?

The proverbs give out nuggets of wisdom in poetic format, almost always over two lines . The first line states the content of the proverb and the second explains it, either by expanding on it or phrasing it slightly differently, such as 17:19.

Whoever loves transgression loves strife;
    he who makes his door high seeks destruction.

I’ve been trying to think of a modern equivalent of this pattern, but the only non-Biblical one I can think of right now is

Do you really like it?

Is it, is it wicked?

which isn’t so much a proverb as a foray into the realm of pointlessness which characterised so much of Radio 1’s output in the early part of this century, but hopefully you see the idea of making a statement and repeating it (incidentally, most of Job is written in this fashion).

To understand the context of these proverbs, it’s a good idea to look at what the book of Proverbs is about from its introduction:

The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel:

for gaining wisdom and instruction;
    for understanding words of insight;
for receiving instruction in prudent behavior,
    doing what is right and just and fair;
for giving prudence to those who are simple, 
    knowledge and discretion to the young—
let the wise listen and add to their learning,
    and let the discerning get guidance—
for understanding proverbs and parables,
    the sayings and riddles of the wise. 

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,
    but fools despise wisdom and instruction.

Proverbs are not laws- they are sayings helping to guide God’s covenant people towards a life of wisdom. There will be situations where different actions apply.

For example, “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth” is probably best disregarded  when receiving generous emails from Nigerian Princes, and you probaby shouldn’t invoke “There’s no such thing as a free lunch” when your grandmother gives you a birthday present. So both these sayings are valid, in different situations.

Going a bit more specifically, the two proverbs in question come in a section starting at 25:1 which states

These also are proverbs of Solomon which the men of Hezekiah king of Judah copied.

This suggests that the proverbs here are a collection of things Solomon has written down, and when compiling an anthology, either Hezekiah’s men or Solomon would have thought it wise to put proverbs of a similar theme together. Hence a mini section on things Solomon said about answering fools (written on April 1st? who knows?) in a larger section about dealing with fools in general.

So which is it then? It’s both! Make a judgement call, and pick and choose your battles.

Answer not a fool according to his folly,
    lest you be like him yourself.

It’s probably best to avoid arguing with a fool, for your own good.

Answer a fool according to his folly,
    lest he be wise in his own eyes.

…unless keeping quiet will cause them or others harm.

So, there is no contradiction. You can still, however, pity the fool.

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